A pair of women stand chatting on the street in downtown Pembroke. "I hear Scott's Shoes is opening up in the Mews," says one, referring to the shopping mall across the street. "Oh, that'll be great, we need more variety," her friend replies.
The arrival of new businesses is definitely gossip-worthy in Pembroke.
The city of about 16,000, like many others across Canada, has gone through hard times in recent years. The arrival of big-box stores and the waning of the timber trade have played a role. Pawn shops have popped up where grocers and independent retailers once stood, and absentee landlords have allowed apartments and commercial properties to fall into disrepair. People shopped at Wal-Mart instead.
But the town once was the heart of the Ottawa Valley.
"There's a photo of Pembroke downtown when my grandmother was young, and there was a sea of people, wall-to-wall – you couldn't drive a car down the street. From one end of downtown to the other, it was thousands of people shopping," recalls Conrad Pool, a Pembroke native and the owner of Ottawa-based Sleepwell Property Management.
He and other private developers are trying to take Pembroke back to that moment. Mr. Pool's Sleepwell has invested $6-million into renovating 16 commercial and 26 residential properties, with an additional $1.5-million coming to complete them. Ashraf Arif and Tim Streek have also been pivotal investors in the city.
"We're so fortunate as a city to have people like that," says Heather McConnell, Pembroke's economic-development officer. The city itself couldn't have shouldered the expense.
On paper, the investment seems like a sure bet. With the Petawawa military base just a 10-minute drive away, and the Algonquin College satellite campus that opened in 2012 sitting on the city's waterfront, Pembroke has the built-in clientele to once again become a bustling centre in rural Ontario.
Mr. Pool had been looking to expand Sleepwell's business beyond Ottawa when he caught wind of another developer making investments in his hometown. That, along with Petawawa, Algonquin College and his personal ties, made Pembroke an easy choice. Sleepwell now owns a quarter of the downtown, and the company is drawing interest and investment from as far as British Columbia.
He wouldn't say he has sentimental feelings for Pembroke, though his parents and a few friends still live there. Rather, Mr. Pool – who left Pembroke 22 years ago, right around the start of its decline – is enjoying the challenge of improving the downtown's seedy reputation.
"Can we actually rent these units? Will people live downtown in a beautiful apartment?" asks Mr. Pool, noting that the poor quality of housing invited drug dealing and prostitution. "Can we change that [stigma]? I think we have."
When Sleepwell purchased the block where Nook Creperie is located, owner Joanna Els jumped at the chance to finally turn the storefront next door into an extension of her popular restaurant. The previous landlord didn't do much besides collect rent, she says, so dealing with Sleepwell has been a dream by comparison. "They were really quite generous."
After 122 years of operating in nearby Renfrew, Scott's Shoes is ready for expansion to Pembroke. "I was really impressed [by Sleepwell's efforts]," says Nathan Scott, 25, the son of owners Ian Scott and Jane Galbraith. "I hadn't been to downtown Pembroke for some time, and even then you could see how it was coming alive."
Entrepreneur Stacy Taylor came to the area in 2010 when her spouse was posted to Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. Her business, Little Things Canning Co., opened in mid-August. "It's exciting to be part of this," she says.
She, along with other merchants, are heartened to see the community rallying around their businesses to make downtown Pembroke a busier, more lively place. Sleepwell isn't the only company doing this kind of work, Mrs. Taylor continues, "but they are setting the bar and forcing others to meet it."
Next door stands Wilkies Fresh Baked Bread, which opened six months ago. "The support from the community has been overwhelming," says owner Andrew Chenard.
On a warm mid-September day, the sounds of hammers ring out to the sidewalk from a gutted apartment building. The units, formerly occupied by people who couldn't afford better, often had plumbing and heating problems, according to Sleepwell. Project manager Amy Talbot can see through the rotting drywall and chipped flooring to what will eventually be beautiful exposed brick and gleaming wood and tile floors.
Down the street, a din of chatter and clinking china greet lunchtime patrons entering the Nook Creperie. The formerly mustard-yellow 34-seater is now a polished restaurant with checkerboard floors, exposed brick walls and chandeliers. The next step, Ms. Els says, is to refinish the building's facade: "It's been covered in plywood, but these buildings are so beautiful underneath."
Though it is led by private investment, Pembroke's revitalization isn't just Mr. Pool's, or Sleepwell's, story to tell. Rather, the collaborative effort between private interests, local government and residents is a model for how other Canadian communities can breathe life back into tired main streets.
"In the next three to five years," Ms. Els says, "I think it's going to look like an entirely new town."